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Locked into some wonderful memories

A group of men who graduated from Locke High some 40 years ago fondly recall their days as pioneers of a brand-new school in a blossoming neighborhood. That early sense of optimism, they say, has vanished.

August 21, 2011|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Richard Owens, 60, left, Johnnie Morgan, 60, and Robert Leonard, 60, are among a group of Locke High student leaders who graduated from the school during its heady early days in the late 1960s. They meet once a month at a Watts coffee shop to share memories about their time on campus and talk about the changes that have occurred in the community in the four decades since they left.
Richard Owens, 60, left, Johnnie Morgan, 60, and Robert Leonard, 60, are… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The two dozen or so men who gathered for breakfast at the Watts Coffee House fondly recalled their days as pioneers of a brand-new high school in a blossoming neighborhood some 40 years ago.

They reminisced about their teachers and principals who were invested in building not just a school but a legacy and a point of pride in Watts in the wake of the 1965 riots. And they talked about the music and the politics that shaped them as they came of age as young black men in such a seminal time.

The group of men — and they want to keep it just men — has started meeting once a month. Their days as students in the first classes at Locke High School, graduating in 1969 and 1970, are long gone. But a piece of them, it seems, never left.

"It's where the action was," said Bruce Peterson, a former student body president. "The hope, the optimism — that's where the energy was."

After their 40th reunion in 2009, some of them decided another decade was too long to wait to see one another. Word has spread since their first breakfast in April and more have shown up each month. They bear-hug, rib one another and bring up old flames.

At first, it was simply a way to catch up. But now it's taken on a deeper meaning: They believe it's up to them to remind people of their history.

"We felt we were the trendsetters, the founding fathers, but we didn't know the legacy we were leaving," said Charles McCarns, 59, of Gardena. "We picked the Saints" — the school's mascot — "we picked the colors. Those were the best years of our lives. In the 1960s, school was the place to be."

They've used the club as a way to honor former administrators and teachers, and next month they will salute the band directors who came up with many of them from Gompers Middle School to create what they boasted was the best band in Los Angeles (this will be a coed event).

The men also recalled growing up in a particularly revolutionary time. While they were in high school, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated, but there were also unprecedented opportunities for young African Americans.

Watts was booming: Steady jobs were plentiful, the new high school was vibrant, a new black middle- class was emerging around them.

Now, they say, that has vanished. So has the sense of optimism.

In the years since they graduated, Locke became a microcosm of the problems that developed in the neighborhood. The school became violent: Fights were commonplace, gangs controlled restrooms, girls said they feared walking the halls alone. The principals and teachers who founded the school eventually left and were replaced by people, these graduates say, who lacked the same vision.

The school was taken over in 2008 by a charter operator, Green Dot Public Schools, and has, by most accounts, become safer and more orderly. But, Peterson said, the damage has been done: Over the years, their legacy has been chipped away. "It's like the fall of the Roman Empire," he said.

To them, this school was indeed something mighty.

It was named after Alain LeRoy Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar and the so-called father of the Harlem Renaissance. They attended other high schools for a year — Washington, Jordan or Fremont, mostly — before Locke opened, and they looked forward to being a part of something new.

"We looked out the window at Gompers [a middle school] and saw Locke being built," said Peterson, 59, of North Hollywood. 'We knew where we were going to go."

Being a new school had its drawbacks. Even though they brag about the band, their uniforms were hand-me-downs from another school and so bulky that they had to use safety pins to keep them from falling off. That first year, the football team had some embarrassing losses. Donnie Anderson, 60, still recalls a particularly stinging game in which Gardena High beat them 60-6 — and even those six points were something of a fluke.

The men have gone on to careers and families. Many of them moved from Watts, a few even became musicians who travel around the country. Still, they look forward to spending a Saturday with their old classmates. "Nobody has a bad memory of back then," McCarns said.

They kept reliving the old days, as breakfast became lunch, until a waitress had to shoo them out. Even then, they loitered in the parking lot, still with plenty of catching up to do.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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